Phonological awareness is the detection and manipulation of sounds within an alphabet language. It involves having a thorough understanding of how oral language can be represented via written language and how those sounds and word are organized. Phonological awareness includes breaking down spoken language into smaller components, such as sentences into words, words into syllables, syllables into specific sounds, and finally the manipulation of those sounds by adding or deleting to create new words (phonemic awareness).
Phonological awareness is critical to success in reading. Reading is dependent of having an understanding of language and word structure. Studies indicate that difficulty in phonological awareness is a precursor to poor reading and writing skills. Some studies even claim that lack of phonemic awareness skills, in particular, has a direct impact on reading success clear through the ninth grade. Specifically, it is estimated that 80% of poor readers lack basic phonological awareness skills and readers without those skills also tend to be the poorest spellers. Not only is phonological awareness critical to learning how to read in the English language, but also in other alphabetic languages, and some experts believe that solid phonological skills can increase the ease in learning other writing systems, such as Japanese, Chinese, or Arabic.
Phonological awareness skill development is extremely systematic and predictable. It begins with understanding and offering rhymes, followed by sentence segmentation (recognizing individual words in sentences), moving on to syllables, then dividing words by onset and rime (b-at, cl-own), and finally ending with the most sophisticated level of individual sound segmentation and blending phonemes (c-a-t, s-a-dd-le), otherwise known as phonemic awareness. Click here for an even more specific breakdown of skills.
It is important to note that phonological awareness is not the same as phonics. Phonological awareness is oral and auditory manipulation of sounds and instruction begins before reading, whereas phonics is practice in sound/symbol relationships. True practice in phonological awareness is done in the absence of print and for most children can successfully begin instruction as early as age four, around the time children develop an appreciation for rhyme. The following are general guidelines to help increase learning success:
- Begin with continuous sounds, such as /s/ or /m/, rather than those that stop (/p/ or /t/).
- Carefully model each activity when it is first introduced. Then, ask your child to try it with you before finally asking your child to do it on his/her own.
- Begin with the most simple of tasks and don’t move on until your child can indicate a mastery in that activity.
- Consider using counters to indicate specific components during an activity. For example, in the sentence “I see a cat.” there are four words. Show those words with four counters, and have your child do the same.
Because of its importance to overall reading success, most curriculum continues to teach phonological and phonemic awareness through the third grade, some even through the fifth grade. It is a critical component to reading instruction. Because it is so systematic, the most success in teaching phonological awareness comes through explicit instruction.
For Further Reading: Development of Phonological Awareness by Jason L. Anthony and David J. Fracis Development of Phonological Awareness and Reading Acquisition:A Study in Spanish Language by Marisol Carrillo
Ideas and Activities for Developing Phonological Awareness Skills by Virginia Department of Education Hand 2 Mind, Chapter 2 by Adams et. al.